"Of course," I told her, wiping my hands on my stained apron. Cook's thick eyebrows arched sternly across her ruddy forehead, and she strode out, banging the wooden door importantly. I sighed, tucking a loose strand of my black hair behind my ear and noticing, embarrassed, that there was a streak of red sauce in it. That's how my hair always was: untidy and messy. I took the long-handled, slotted spoon off its hook on the wall, and slid it into the creamy white broth, careful not to singe the hem of my dress in the licking flames under the great iron cauldron. I had to use both hands to move the thick soup. The sweet smell of potatoes filled the kitchen, and I let myself close my eyes briefly, forgetting about the other kitchen maids and the bustling room, imagining that I was a lady, being served piping hot soup by my own servant. My eyes quickly flew open as Cook burst through the door again.
"Ava! Keep stirring!" she commanded. I obeyed, longing for this dinner to end, for the royalty to finish eating, as I passed the long spoon round and round the pot.
In my chamber, I lay on my pallet, listening to the gentle snores of the other servants and pretending to doze myself. When I was sure that they were all truly sleeping, I carefully pulled myself up. Creeping across the floor, my bare feet lighter than feathers, I stole out the door. I glided through the castle, cloaked in shadow. There was no sound except for my breathing. When I got outside, I took a deep breath of cool night air that slid down my throat like silk. It was a clear night; the sky was covered with endless stars that filled up the indigo. Climbing up my favorite apple tree, I sat on a low branch, my toes barely brushing the blades of grass. I let my imagination take hold of me. I was not nine-year-old Ava, but a rich duchess, riding a pure gold carriage drawn by seven snow-white horses...
I awoke later in the night. Disoriented, I had to sit dazedly for a minute to separate my dream from reality. Jumping down, I noted that a chilly breeze had picked up, and pierced through my thin nightdress. I shivered. It was much darker now; the moon had slid behind the tangled branches of a tree. Now everything was painted in impenetrable shadow. Squinting, I found the faint outline of the castle in the inky black, and started towards it, knowing that it would be dawn in a few hours. I quickened my pace, then, suddenly, bumped into something.
"Oh!" I cried, stumbling back. What is it? I thought panicking. I frantically ran through all the possibilities I could think of with my still-tired mind. An animal? No, too large. A statue? No, too soft. A...a person? I felt as though I had swallowed a cupful of snow. I backed away slowly. What if it was Cook? I could just picture the look on her face if she found out about my nightly routine.
"H-hello?" a voice called. It was a timid, female voice. Not Cook. But then who? The figure stood slowly.
"Who's there?" I said, trying not to let my voice waver. The person came closer, and I caught sight of a simple golden circlet, glinting in the darkness. I gasped as she replied, "Princess...Aurora."
I knelt, my heart pounding, and began to address her, "Your maj-" She cut me off. "That's okay, you can call me Aurora. And please, skip the formalities. It gets so tiresome after awhile." I cautiously stood. Would she get me in trouble? She moved closer, and I saw her face. She had long, brown hair, encircled by a simple golden crown, framing a pleasant, pretty face. The princess' emerald eyes sparkled in the darkness. She was wearing a white silk nightgown, embroidered with flowers around the laced neckline. I suddenly felt shabby in my old nightdress.
"Hello, your m-...Aurora," I said, feeling strangely calm in the midst of royalty. "I'm Ava, and I am an apprentice of the kitchen cook." I was shocked when the princess didn't send me away. Instead, she gave a half smile, and commented, "It is such a pleasant day out. Shall we take a stroll?" I laughed. Playing along, I replied, "Of course. I hear that nightgowns are the new fashion." We both burst into laughter at that. It was absolutely unthinkable: her highness the princess and a lowly kitchen maid. But, somehow, we were both completely fine with it.
I found the princess the next night. She was waiting where we had first bumped into each other, clothed in a long, lemon-yellow nightdress with birds beaded onto it. I looked down at myself. I was wearing one of my better nightclothes, but I still felt very self-conscious. "Hello, Ava," she called cheerily as I approached her. "Hello, Aurora," I replied, remembering to call her by the name she preferred. Aurora smiled at me, saying, "Do you have any plans for tonight?" Curious, I shook my head. She smiled mischievously. "I'll be right back," she promised, already taking off for the castle at a run.
I had never known of such fashion. Aurora had brought out two of her most beautiful dresses I had ever seen, and I hadn't hesitated to try mine on. It had a deep blue, tight-fitting bodice the color of the night sky, with a pretty frill on the chest. The sleeves reached to my wrist, with a slit on the outside of the cuff, closed by a delicate pearl button. The thick golden belt flowed gracefully into an floor-length, sky-blue skirt, embroidered with a rose and studded with rubies and silver buttons. I also had on a white fur-lined jacket over my dress. I felt beautiful, and Aurora and I played in her dresses until the moon sank behind the mountains in the west. When I returned to the servants' sleeping chamber to finally sleep, I was already coming up with a plan to repay Aurora for all of her kindness.
Two evenings after donning Aurora's luxurious dress, I decided to show her my magic place. Aurora followed me just past the grape orchard, into a loose ring of white firs. Their entwined tree branches all but blocked out the sky, and dragonflies flitted in and out of the thick trunks. The air smelled fresh and crisp, seeming to sparkle. Sometimes, I caught sight of a glimmer in the edges of my vision, but when I would look straight at it, it would disappear. When we both stepped into the place, Aurora stared around, awed. I knew she could feel the magic of the space as well. "How did you find this place?" Aurora whispered, her voice a murmur. "I was supposed to be picking grapes," I replied, matching my tone to hers. Something about this circle of trees called for silence, and we didn't resist it. We sat there together, hand in hand. The cool, long grass blades, felt good on my outstretched legs. After a time, Aurora sighed, "How often do you come here?"
"When I'm feeling a strong emotion. I come here on my birthdays, when Cook is being strict, when I need to think."
"This place is magical."
"Does it have a name?"
"No, I guess not."
Aurora smiled, her green eyes twinkling in the darkness that shrouded the clearing. "Let's name it," she proclaimed, still keeping her voice quiet. I nodded once, looking around. I imagined that the ivory-colored firs were watching us, keepers of the fragile tranquility and stillness. A breath of a breeze touched my face, rustling the leaves that seemed to touch the faraway stars. "How about..." Aurora looked at me expectantly. I shook my head. "You'll laugh." I muttered. "No I won't, Ava," replied Aurora. I looked up into her trusting face, glowing in the crescent moon. "Well..." I began hesitantly, my voice dropping lower than usual. "How about...the Guardians' Place?" Aurora nodded, eyes widened in interest, signaling me to go on. "I think that these trees look like they're protecting something...maybe...I don't know, the silence?" I watched my friend's reaction carefully. She looked impressed, and then whispered, "I love that...but could we change it to the Guardian's Ring? I think that sounds more..." Aurora trailed off, glancing at me hopefully. "More elegant?" I suggested quietly. We both grinned, then turned back to face the compelling, magical Guardian's Ring.
We both agreed to sleep that next evening, to catch up on the sleep we had missed. But I found myself awake after only a short time. I felt no sleepiness, so, after awhile, I gave in, and crept into the night. Instinctively, I walked towards the grape orchard, into the Guardian's Ring. I sat there for a time, losing myself in the calm and serenity. I was amazed when Aurora glided into the circle behind me, her golden circlet glittering. We exchanged a knowing glance, and she sat down next to me. I sighed contentedly: my new friend was beside me, and I was with her in a place of magic. We were both feeling so tranquil; maybe that's why we were taken by surprise.
"Ava!" Cook shouted, her face a strange shade of purple, as she leaped out of the trees. I felt hurt that she had shattered the perfect silence of the Guardian's Ring. "Why are you here? You should have been in bed ages ago, young lady-" Cooks eyes came to rest on the princess. She very nearly exploded, or so it seemed. Her eyes bugged out, and her face became even more purple. She gave a low and clumsy curtsy. "Forgive me, your majesty," she said, sounding stunned. She shot me a glare, part furious, part astounded. She straightened suddenly, and, grabbing my arm roughly, shoved me out of the Guardian's Ring. Aurora called out, "Come to the Guardian's Ring tomorrow and-" But I was too far away to hear the rest.
Cook roared at me in the kitchen until my ears rang and tears streamed down my face, leaving tracks on my grimy cheeks. She forbid me from ever seeing the princess again, and informed me that the king and queen were telling the same to their daughter. I was a commoner, she yelled over and over, and it was a disgrace to the kingdom to interact with royalty in any way. I felt as though part of me had gone along with Aurora, never to be seen again. I was not whole; I was incomplete. The next day, I was given extra chores. I had to go out into the castle orchards and pick the ripe peppers. There were so many of them! The sun burned down on the back of my bare neck, but I hardly noticed. I was too overcome with an overwhelming sense of loneliness. I used to have my time with the princess to look forward to, to keep me working hard in the kitchen. Now I was working simply to please Cook. I stooped to pick yet another sun-ripened pepper. I felt hot and itchy in my old dress. I missed Aurora so much it hurt. Her twinkling emerald eyes, her crown, her bell-like laughter, her kindness...I recalled her parting words: "Come to the Guardian's Ring tomorrow and" And what? I supposed I would go to the Guardian's Ring. There couldn't be any harm in that, as long as I was careful not to let Cook see me. A fierce loyalty filled me up like a flame. Of course I would follow Aurora's instructions. No matter what, she was my friend!
I carefully walked into the Guardian's Ring. Tonight's dinner had been very nerve-wracking. There she was, only a room away. I could just picture her, in her usual beautiful attire, sitting in her princess-like manner. Did she miss me at all? I walked into the clearing, allowing the usual magic to envelope me. I glanced around. Tucked into a branch, in a place only she and I could have see, was a rolled-up scroll. I skipped towards it, eagerly unrolling it, and noting that the royal crest was painted on the top. Written in russet-colored ink in a loopy, slanted handwriting, it read:
I miss you so much! You were are the best friend I ever had. We are still friends. I hope this letter reaches you. Our guardians may have forbid us from seeing each other, but they mentioned nothing of exchanging notes! If we visit this place on alternating days, we will never see each other, but will be able to read the words written by the other. In this way, I hope we will be able to become "letter friends", even if we won't be able to play together in the normal way. Best wishes and hoping to hear from you soon!
Your friend forever,
There was a lot of space after the note. I felt sorrow and excitement burn in my chest in equal parts. I wouldn't be able to see Aurora, but I would be friends with her. Laying next to the note was a long, silver-and-grey quill and a bottle of russet-colored ink. With a half smile on my lips, I unscrewed the top of the ink bottle and picked up the quill. Dipping it into the ink, I began to write.